Confucius was a philosopher and teacher who lived 2,500 years ago. His teachings, and those of his disciples, have since permeated every aspect of Chinese culture, including food and wine. His culinary precepts would strike food lovers today as surprisingly of the moment: protecting the environment; eating seasonally; being wary of food spoilage; adhering to a proper way of preparing, serving and eating food; and drinking in moderation.
"It was thousands of years ago, but he already understood a lot," says Martin Yan, the Foster City, Calif.-based television cooking show star and cookbook author.
Confucius was, to quote E.N. Anderson, author of "The Food of China," not only a great man, he was "cool." The worldwide name recognition Confucius enjoys is not lost on Chinese leaders today, who after decades of attacks on his philosophy have begun talking up his virtues.
"What is going on now is that Confucius has become a brand in a sense," says Thomas A. Wilson, an East Asian history professor and Confucius expert at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "It's marketable, and Confucius is the friendly face of civility that kind of replaces the scary face of Mao in past days."
That Confucius would be adopted and adapted by government is nothing new. Born Kong Qiu but better known to the Chinese as "Kongfu-zi" or "Kongzi" (Latinized to "Confucius"), he lived in the ancient state of Lu in what is now Shandong Province in northeastern China from 551 to 479 B.C. His teachings competed with other philosophical systems for centuries before being endorsed by the Han Dynasty about 2,000 years ago. But Confucian thought really came to the fore, Wilson notes, with the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century and held sway over the imperial system until a republic was established in 1912.
Wilson said Confucius had the biggest impact on ritual practices: the veneration of ancestors, the structures of family life, the interaction of the living and the dead. Florence Lin, in her "Chinese Regional Cookbook" of 1975, said that emphasis on ritual resulted in special ritual foods that made cuisine increasingly important to Chinese culture.
"Not only were Confucius' teachings closely followed, but also his love and respect of good food influenced the Chinese way of life," Lin wrote. "To this day, whether one is literate or illiterate, rich or poor, young or old, the love of good food naturally becomes a part of the Chinese way of life."
Ming Tsai, the Wellesley, Mass.-based chef and television personality, says he was raised in the Confucian way to respect his elders, and that in turn led to a respect for food.
"Everything my parents did made me," he explains. "And, thank God, half of their life is spent around food, so any time we did anything it was always centered around where to eat food. There was this inherent elders/respecting food thing. There was a direct connection; you couldn't separate the two."
No one really knows what Confucius ate. While he advocated feasting ceremonies, his own taste seems to have been for "plain, straightforward food and economical food," Anderson says.
Yet Confucius had definite quality standards that remain potent to this day. Chefs from Lin to Yan to Tsai can quote the salient points from "The Analects," a collection of Confucian sayings assembled by his disciples after his death. Tsai, for one, believes Confucius today plays a much larger culinary role than most people realize.
"He instilled in all Chinese chefs, in all chefs, that you need to be very disciplined about exactness," Tsai says. "You can never cook food too well or mince it too fine. You have to strive for perfection."